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The Myth of Self-Government


AMERICANS PRIDE THEMSELVES on what we may call the Great American Myth of Self-Government.

But in a very real sense we are governed not by ourselves but by a collection of men and women quite separate from ourselves. That, of course, is contrary to everything we learn in school. Then, again, most of those schools belong to some government.

Think back to what we learned about why the American colonists rebelled against the British Empire. A main reason for the rebellion was the injustice of taxation without representation. The colonists elected no representatives to Parliament, yet that body could levy taxes on them.

Well, as an English comedian once said, “So tell me, how do you like taxation with representation?” If you read the list of grievances in Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, you may experience déjà vu. This one, for example: “He [King George] has erected a Multitude of new Offices, and sent hither Swarms of Officers to harrass [sic] our People, and eat out their Substance.”

The question, then, is: What has “self-government” gotten us? Not much — if we consider the level of taxation, civil forfeiture, land-use regulation, government snooping, prohibition of peaceful acts, and all the rest. In fact, if this is self-government, then maybe the alternative wasn’t too bad after all. As Mel Gibson’s character in The Patriot said, “If I don’t like one tyrant 3,000 miles away, why would I like 3,000 tyrants one mile away?” Good question.

I know the social-studies response, which we all learn in public school: We are the government. We rule ourselves.

Well, I don’t feel like the government — especially when I see how much money it took from me last year. If I were the government, I don’t think I’d have such a sick feeling in my stomach as I peruse my tax return and think about writing a check to the IRS. In contrast, I feel good whenever I make a deposit to my own bank account. Yes, there is definitely a difference between me and the government.

So where’s the self-government? Could it lie in the fact that we get to vote for the officeholders? In all but the tiniest jurisdictions, one person’s vote is inconsequential. If that’s self-government, what else ya got?

Perhaps self-government lies in some abstract notion of popular sovereignty. The theory is that the authority of government flows from The People as a collective entity. Freedom lies in the liberty of The People to participate in the political process, which expresses the general will, to use the phrase of Jean Jacques Rousseau, the modern thinker with whom this view is best identified.

This notion of liberty was examined by the great European classical liberal Benjamin Constant (1767–1830; see Ralph Raico’s essay, “Benjamin Constant,” New Individualist Review, vol. 3, no. 2, 1964). Constant wished objectively to compare what he called “the liberty of the ancients” with that of the moderns.(In this respect at least, Rousseau was an ancient.) In the ancient sense, liberty, writes Raico, consisted in “equal powerlessness before the state and equal participation in public affairs.” What the polity did was legitimate as long as all citizens (however defined) were able to participate.

Thus if The People (a majority, that is) in a direct democracy wished to outlaw alcoholic beverages, they would have a right to do so. Indeed, under this notion of liberty, it would violate the freedom of The People if alcohol were not outlawed.

Note some further implications. In this view, there is no need to fear the state. It is the embodiment of The People’s will. Rousseau said that if someone defied the state, compelling compliance would merely force him to be free. A constitution, which by its nature defines the limits of the state, would violate the prerogatives of The People.

The U.S. Constitution does this in all sorts of ways. The most explicit example is the First Amendment, which states, “Congress shall make no law….” Congress consists in theory of representatives chosen by the people. The First Amendment places an absolute limit on what the people’s representatives (and by implication the people collectively) can do. According to the ancient notion, that violates liberty.

The collectivism of that notion is palpable. If we consider “The People” as though it were an entity rather than an abstraction, we overlook the individuals that actually exist. If “The People” outlaw alcohol by a majority vote, those who subscribe to the ancient notion of liberty will miss the fact that individuals have been deprived of their freedom to engage in a certain kind of peaceful conduct. What appears to be an exercise of freedom is really a violation of freedom. It is not self-government at all.

What is the meaning of liberty?

Fortunately, the Framers of the Constitution subscribed to the modern notion of liberty. Here’s how Constant saw that notion:

Inquire first of all, gentlemen, what, in our day, an Englishman, a Frenchman, an inhabitant of the United States of America understands by the word, liberty. It means for everyone to be under the dominion of nothing but the laws, not to be arrested, detained, or put to death, or maltreated in any way as a consequence of the arbitrary will of one or more individuals. It is for everyone to have the right to express his opinion; to choose and exercise his occupation; to dispose of his property and even to abuse it; to go and come without having to give an accounting of his motives or actions. It is, for each man, the right to join with other individuals, either to confer on their interests, or simply to fill his hours and days in a manner more comfortable to his inclinations and his fantasies.

Finally, it is the right for each to influence the administration of the government, either by the nomination of all or of certain functionaries, or by representatives, petitions, and demands, which the authority is more or less obligated to take into consideration.

Thus the modern notion is intrinsically individualistic. The focus is on living human beings. As Ludwig von Mises wrote, “Society lives and acts only in individuals.” They form communities, to be sure, because the benefits, material and spiritual, far surpass what each could achieve alone.

As Frédéric Bastiat wrote in Economic Harmonies, thanks to specialization and the division of labor, an individual in a single day has access to more goods and services than he could produce in a thousand years. But that does not change the fact that individuals, not groups, are what exist.

Which notion of liberty is dominant in America today? While remnants of the modern notion admittedly can be found, it is beyond question that the ancient notion predominates.

To be free is to be at liberty to participate in the political process. Voting is widely regarded as the “most precious right.”

People accept nearly any restriction on peaceful activity as long as it is perceived as the product of democratic procedures.

The principle of due process has come to mean the mere observance of legislative and executive rules.

The content of enactments matters less than protocol. The older notion of “substantive due process” is long gone. (Things deteriorated further in the Clinton years, when the legislature was often bypassed in favor of autocratic executive orders.)

Thus the Myth of Self-Government. Obviously it is a useful myth to the power holders. Resistance to their decrees will be minimized if people generally believe the government is an extension of themselves acting always in their interest.

Many resources go into perpetuating the myth. Observe how heartily voting is extolled as the supreme virtue and duty of citizenship.

And it works. Next election day let it be known that you did not vote and watch the expressions of people as you say this. It will be as though you announced you had leprosy.

If liberty is to be achieved in America, the first order of business is to proclaim what liberty is. Freedom lovers must emphasize that liberty consists not in the right to participate in the political process, but rather in the right to live one’s life without imposition by that process. Indeed, it consists in, as Herbert Spencer put it, “the right to ignore the state.” Real self-government requires the freedom to govern oneself.

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.